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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Oscar  Wilde

Oscar Wilde 1854to –1900

English novelist, playwright, and poet, and the master of witty quips, known for The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest among others. He was born in Dublin into a family of intellectuals, and attended Trinity College and Oxford, where he began earning a reputation for his flamboyance and decadence. These were characteristics of Aestheticism, a movement that promoted “Art for Art’s sake” and the importance of beauty over meaning, which Wilde adopted wholeheartedly. Finding success with his poetry, he traveled for a year promoting himself in the United States (claiming that he “kissed” Walt Whitman along the way), then lived in Paris for a time. Upon returning to London, he married Constance Lloyd and had two sons. His career focused on journalism and short fiction and continued to thrive, but his biggest impact came with The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, a novel of decadence and thinly-veiled homosexuality decried as immoral. Wilde then turned to theater, and had immense success with his satirical comedies such as A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. He found great pleasure in poking fun at Victorian society, and for the most part, Victorian society enjoyed being made fun of. Wilde was the toast of the town, invited to all the parties and known for his biting banter and wit. In 1891, Wilde met Lorde Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie” to his friends. Douglas was not Wilde’s first homosexual affair, but it was certainly the most intense and, ultimately, ruinous. When Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a “posing somdomite” [sic] on a public calling card, Douglas convinced Wilde to sue him for libel—against the advice of friends such as Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw. The trial quickly backfired when the defense provided several male sex workers Wilde had slept with, and the case was dropped in favor of prosecuting Wilde instead. He became one of the first, and certainly most famous, people convicted under the UK’s “gross indecency” laws, and he was given its harshest sentence: two years’ hard labor. He died only a few years after his release, separated from his wife and reunited with Douglas (who did not once visit or write while Wilde was in prison). While he never apologized for his relationships—in fact, he defended them beautifully in court—he didn’t quite identify as homosexual, believing instead that he was imprisoned for being an artist and a nonconformist. Yet being so famously outed turned him into a permanent icon for the burgeoning gay community.

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